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The globe-trotter with a mission


She works for six months in a year and for the next six months she is on her mission across the globe to help the poor and destitute. In 1998 she had witnessed the ghastly terrorist attack on the US embassy in Nairobi. At that point of time she was working in an orphanage with AIDS-afflicted children. From Africa to Tibet, she has travelled to 24 different countries in her 24 years.

Victoria Bauer, from Adelaide, Australia has missioned herself to spread the word of freedom across the globe. At present she is on her third visit to Kolkata. Besides teaching destitute children at schools she also imparts embroidery skills to women that she learnt from her mother. She first came to Kolkata two years back with her father who then used to work for an organisation called, Save the Children in Bangladesh. In her present trip to Kolkata, she is working in an organisation called Free the Children (FTC). She had first heard about this organisation back home in Adelaide on the radio. She had immediately contacted the authorities of this organisation and expressed her desire to work for them, and undoubtedly she received a warm welcome from FTC!

The one-woman army had started her social work among the Australian aborigines, and there was no looking back. She has worked to help drug-addicts and alcoholics in Tanzania, Somalia, South Africa and Indonesia. And how does this one woman army meet the expenses for her trips? Well, when she is at home she earns doing any sort of work she can lay her hands on. From entertainment projects in the Sidney Olympics to marketing jobs - Victoria has earned for her mission, exploring diverse avenues. She has also written for quite a few magazines that are working for the emancipation of the poor.

She plans to raise more funds for the little children of Kolkata. Her commitment to the cause has helped her achieve so much and she is just 24 years old! It wont be an exaggeration to say that her achievements truly personify the phrase, "where there is a will there is a way"!


Child-soldiers with the right cause


The UNICEF estimates that 82 percent of the girls in the State of Rajasthan, India are married by the age of 18; 48 per cent by the age of 15. The child sex ratio too is against the girls with the number of girls (per 1,000 boys) in the 0-6 age group coming down from 916 in the 1991 Census to 909 in the 2001 Census.

In spite of these dismal figures children in Rajasthan are making waves - not the ones who go to elite english-medium schools of the big cities but those children who belong to villages and remote areas. These children behave as competently as adults when they questions about their rights, fight social evils such as child marriage, campaign against children's addiction to gutkha (tobacco) and alcohol, wage a war against the use of polythene bags!

They demand from their gram panchayats that their villages be kept clean, that the promise of teachers and other staff for their schools be fulfilled, and much more. Child power has become a reality in certain parts of rural Rajasthan, thanks to a unique and novel concept known as Bal Panchayat. Modelled on a gram panchayat, each one comprises between 14 and 18 members in the age group of 9-16, has a president and a secretary elected by the children of the village, and is not a child's play.

Initiated and supported by the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), this model, which was tried in the Bishnupur block of West Bengal a few years ago, has been implemented in two districts of Rajasthan - Ajmer and Baran.

Every Bal Panchayat maintains a register which contains details about those children who have gone back to school thanks to the Bal Panchayat's efforts. In Kesarpura, 92 children have returned to school after the Bal Panchayat reached out to the families of each one of them and argued with the parents that their child needs to be in school and not in the fields tending animals or performing household chores.

Most of the Bal Panchayats have also started a drive against the use of polythene bags. The objective of the campaign, however, is not to protect the environment but to prevent cows and buffaloes from swallowing bits of polythene along with garbage. Polythene harms them and can even cause their death. Quite a few of them have passed resolutions seeking to impose a heavy fine on shops that sell gutka to children. The children hope to implement this diktat with the co-operation of the gram panchayats. Similar resolutions have been passed against shops selling liquor to children.

Though the terrain is rough, the sky is stormy and a long, long path to tread upon, these children are willing to fight on with their little but firm fists. With passage of time these undeterred, exemplary children will surely achieve everything that now resembles a distant dream.


Home but not alone


Way back in 1992, members of the Vijay Foundation Trust set up a home for destitute children. The home was started in a rented place at Cuddapah in Andhra Pradesh with personal contributions form the trust members. It was named 'Aarti Home', in memory of a little girl named Aarti who had faced a tragic death.

What began in a small way with four children, gradually increased to a strength of 45. Recognising the services of the Aarti Home, the State Government had allotted a piece of land to the trust in 1995, where a permanent home was built for the children in 1996. At Aarti Home, the staff and volunteers provide real personal care for the children. Aarti Home does not merely fulfil the essential needs of children, but provides them with a caring environment to grow up into understanding individuals equipped to make positive contributions to the society.

At this home each child is given nutritious and balanced food according to a diet developed by a qualified nutritionist. Medical care of the children is taken care of by a panel of well qualified physicians from Cuddapah who provide free service.

The primary aim of the home is to make the children self supporting by giving them good education. Children up to 7 years are taught in the Aarti Home itself while older children are sent to reputed private schools in town. Aarti Home staff and sponsors take pride in the fact that their children successfully compete with other more privileged children enrolled in these schools. Apart from providing the children excellent education at Government approved schools, strong cultural values are also imparted to the children at Aarti Home.

As time passes on, Aarti home is growing under the patronage of the Vijay Foundation Trust. Many people approach the home to provide shelter to more and more children. Amidst poverty and hunger, love and compassion has brought together a number of individuals who were complete strangers, and now they gladly share the same fate.


Annakshetra - the hunger free zone!


Geeta Devi and her team of eight committed workers have created waves in the city of Bhopal. After the horror stories of starvation deaths in different parts of the country, their trust in Bhopal has been providing free food to the needy for the past several months.

In one of old Bhopal's busiest corners, a long line forms every day for one free meal. The Ashapura Trust calls this 'annakshetra' or area where food is available! Everyday more than seventy people get a sumptuous meal with unlimited helpings. These people belong to the most marginalised sections of the society. Some of them are beggars, destitutes and derelicts.

For Geeta Devi, this is her religion. She gets immense satisfaction to see people content after a square meal. Each meal is worth almost Rs 30 in market. More than Rs 25000 is spent monthly to carry out this noble endeavour.

The Ashapurna trust is entirely based on public cooperation. Free grains, flour, pulses and other edibles are given to and accepted by the trust. People also contribute money on occasions such as birthdays and marriages to feed the needy and the poor in their name.

Geeta Devi and her band are very happy to serve the society in this way. However, they wish to feed more and more people but due to lack of resources they are unable to do so.


An undeterred fighter


She is a devout fighter who has vowed never to stop her struggle against illicit liquor. Indra, her little daughter was hacked right in front of her as Yashoda was demonstrating against illegal arrack stores. Yasoda is no dif ferent from most Dalit women in rural India - socially oppressed, economically e xploited and politically ignored. But what makes her stand apart is her ability to fight relentlessly for the causes she holds dear.

Dalits, she rea lised, could not make use of even the minimal facilities provided by the governm ent - such as the public distribution system or the schools - largely because a substantial portion of their meagre earnings was wiped out by the menfolk's addi ction to liquor.

It is an everyday struggle. It is quarrel between d runken men and their wives everyday. If women dare question their husbands, they are beaten up mercilessly. Or they are asked to go back to their parents in nei ghbouring villages. But they are unable to stay in their parents' places, as the situation is hardly different from that of their own homes. They return, and th is is the routine in almost every home.

Illicit liquor rob these Dal it families of their hard-earned money, which could otherwise be spent on childr en's education and other necessary things in life. It causes unrest in families. Children who do not have the benefit of education get frustrated and many unple asant things happen. At the same time, the manufacturers and vendors of illicit liquor educate their children and ensure that they are well-settled in life.

Yasoda was convinced that education was the key to the empowerment of w omen and that the greatest impediment to ensuring education was their menfolk's addiction to liquor. The only way out was to wipe out the illicit liquor trade f rom their village. But how? Centre for Rural Women's Education for Liberation (C RWEL), a voluntary organisation that was operating against this social menace, discovered Yasoda as a potential leader who could be of immense help in its efforts to mobilise Dalit-women and empower them. A unit of the Rural Women's Front ( a wing of the CRWEL) was formed at Bheemanthoppu and Yasoda was appointed its coordinator. And there was no looking back.

The struggle against illicit liquor is always a "continuous activity" because the convicted offenders regroup and resume operations after serving their jail terms. Corruption particularly at the lower levels of law enforcing agencies and the absence of severe punishment for the offenders perpetuates the problem. The women's groups have to be alert always. As demonstrations are not enough to catalyse police interventions, sometimes women's groups have to march to the distillation spots and destroy arrack stored in mud pots.

In December 2000, just when Yasoda and her friends thought their village had gained a respite from the menace, bootleggers from neighbouring areas started selling illicit liquor in the village. Some local people who had been involved in bootlegging asked the women why they alone should be penalised. On the evening of December 6, an agitated Yasoda, accompanied by the local panchayat president (also a woman), took a group women, including Indra and Rathnammal, to the spot where bootleggers from neighbouring villages had set up shop. Her efforts to stop their trade did not succeed. Yasoda swooned when their henchmen assaulted her. Indra, who came to her mother's rescue, was hacked to death. Rathnammal was also killed by the goondas. Several women and a few men of the village were injured in the attack.

Yasoda has not recovered from the grief over the loss of her only child. But she remains firm in her resolve to fight against illicit liquor. In fact, she is even more firm on ending the menace and vows to continue her fight for women's empowerment with greater vigour throughout her life.

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